disability discrimination

Many states have approved the use of medical marijuana, despite the fact that the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.  As a result there is a tension between state rights to use medical marijuana and federal law prohibiting its possession.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had an opportunity to determine how to balance the rights of an employee who had been prescribed and was taking medical marijuana for Crohn’s Disease versus the employer’s interest in complying with federal law and maintaining a drug free work place.  The Court found that the employee had sufficiently alleged that she was a qualified individual with a disability who was entitled to a reasonable accommodation related to use of medical marijuana.  As a result, her firing after testing positive could be challenged and she could pursue a disability discrimination claim under state law.

As part of the hiring process, a new employee was required to take a drug test.  She immediately explained to her supervisor that she suffered from Crohn’s disease and she had been prescribed and was using medical marijuana which was improving her appetite and allowing her to stabilize her weight.  She said that she did not take it before work or during working hours, but that if tested, she would test positive.  After being tested and getting a positive result, the human resource administrator called and fired her.  When the employee tried to explain the she had a prescription, the administrator told her that the company follows federal law, not state law.

The employee ultimately sued in state court claiming that she was being discriminated against because of her disability and that the company had failed to accommodate her disability. Continue Reading Employer’s Defense Goes Up In Smoke

shotYou don’t need to look for a needle in a haystack to figure out this latest case from the Second Circuit.

But you do need to know what “trypanophobia” is.

Ready? Fear of needles.

That becomes important in a Second Circuit court decision yesterday holding that an employee’s fear of needles prevented that employee from performing an essential function of his job and rejecting his disability discrimination claim.

The background of Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp. (download here)  is fairly straightforward as cases go.  As you’ve probably noticed of late, many of the big pharmacy chains have been requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations in order to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the health care market.

In April 2011, Rite Aid revised its job descriptions for pharmacists to require them to hold a valid immunization certification and noted that immunizations were part of the pharmacists’ essential duties and responsibilities.

The plaintiff in the above case worked as a pharmacist for 34 years.  When the job description was changed, he received a note from his physician explaining that the employee was “needle phobic and cannot administer immunization by injection.”  When he refused to perform that role (and I’m simplifying for purposes of a blog post), Rite Aid terminated his employment.

A trial did not go well for Rite Aid.  A jury determined that the employee had been discriminated against and awarded over $2M in damages.

Hence the appeal.

In reviewing the matter, the the Second Circuit rejected an employee’s disability discrimination claim because the evidence “compels a finding that immunization injections were an essential job requirement.”

While “it is understandable that the jury had sympathy for Stevens, afflicted as he was with an unusual phobia”, “his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only reasonable conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence”.

The court also looked at whether there was a reasonable accommodation that could have been provided to him.  But the court said that the employee failed to show a reasonable accommodation existed at the time.  An accommodation does not require elimination of an essential function of the job.

The court case is a very helpful decision in clarifying whether an employer can insist on having its employees perform the essential functions of a job. Too often, employees suggest accommodations that would have them avoid an essential function of the job altogether. This court case should put a damper on such arguments.

For employers, the case is also a helpful reminder on having clear descriptions on what the essential functions of a job are and being able to explain why the duties are created that way.   Nonetheless, employers should still engage in an interactive process with an employee about whether there are any reasonable accommodations that can be provided.